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March 8, 2008

Shaming a child and the wisdom(?) of parental punishment

Photo_servlet As detailed in this local Florida story, headlined "Teen Forced To Carry 'I Am Stupid' Sign After Speeding Ticket," a mother recently made headlines by imposing a shaming punishment on her reckless son.  Here are the basic details:

Adam Clark was pulled over going 107 mph in a 55-mph zone; neither the police nor his mother were pleased.  Adam's mother, Heidi Wisniewski, not only took his car away, but also made him a sign to show outside of his school every morning and every afternoon.

He was forced to hold a sign reading, "I was stupid. I drove over 100 mph and got caught. Thank God!  I could have killed me and my friends."  Adam said he got some strange looks and laughs from classmates at Orlando's Merritt Island High School, but said he accepts his punishment. Despite the humiliation, he said he isn't mad at his mother....

Wisniewski said her son would be in front of the school before and after school for a month, and added that she didn't think the punishment is over the line.  "I love my son very much," she said.  "I think more parents need to be tougher on their children."...

Adam said the punishment worked. "I've learned my lesson," Adam said.

As a fan of shaming punishments, I am quite pleased to hear about a mother willing to impose a (quite effective) type of punishment that the criminal justice system is often unwilling to impose.

Of course, I know that many (like Dan Markel) are adamantly opposed to shaming punishments.  I wonder if Dan or others consider the mother in this story to be unfit because she imposed a severe shaming punishment.  Or do those who oppose state-sponsored shaming punishments believe that parents can justifiably use these punishment even though the state should not?  If this is the view of anti-shaming advocates, are they fundamentally asserting that the state should never consider taking on a parental-type role in the operation of a criminal justice system?

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg

March 8, 2008 at 09:40 AM | Permalink


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Very good questions.

Posted by: shg | Mar 8, 2008 10:12:53 AM

This is just not comparable to the examples of shaming we see when trial courts try to use it. And yes, it is very different when parents do it. First, they offer only carrots and sticks (in this case, use of a car). The state threatens imprisonment or other substantial limits on personal liberty. Anything imposed by a government actor is qualitatively different.

Also, re: parental roles for the government, there is a huge difference between civil regulation and criminal prohibition, apparently lost in an era of registries and commitment procedures.

Whether perceived as paternal or maternal, the parental state has not been very sober or balanced when addressing criminal justice concerns. We have presumptive DUI laws forced on us by MADD, insane drug laws forced on us by law and order types and sex offender laws driven by moral panic. In truth, shame sentences would just be tacked on and we would have harsh sentences that are both draconian and snide.

Posted by: Alec | Mar 8, 2008 1:35:16 PM

Shame sentence in this case is a short time in the morning and after school for one month. The government's shaming sentences are for a lifetime. Any criminal record does not end in a month, reentering society is horrible. I don't know of anyone who is thanking this penal system for teaching them a valuable lesson. Do You?

Posted by: America land of the free? | Mar 8, 2008 8:41:21 PM

Re: "If this is the view of anti-shaming advocates, are they fundamentally asserting that the state should never consider taking on a parental-type role in the operation of a criminal justice system?"

What are parens patriae powers about? Aren't they relevant to the (especially juvenile) criminal justice system? That is to say, both shaming and anti-shaming advocates can readily acknowledge that the state, in part through the criminal justice system, already takes on a "parental type role" as guardian of persons under legal disability (e.g., minors, comatose or incompetent patients, the mentally ill).

As an avowed "fan of shaming punishments," I'm curious as to what you think of proposed legislation by California State Senator (15th Dist.) Abel Maldonado to "require sex offenders to be identified on their vehicle license plates, like modern-day scarlet letters, pointing to statistics that show such criminals frequently use their cars to commit crimes" (SanLuisObispo.com). For more on the proposal, see the story here http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/story/298516.html

I am adamantly opposed to "shaming punishments," for a number of reasons, some of which I share with Dan M. (one reason: those who are already 'shameless,' for instance, capable of routinely violating both laws and social norms, are not likely to be shamed into good behavior; its power to effect conformity in such cases is otiose). I think its putative effectiveness is no more likely than the persuasiveness of Adam Smith's argument that in a market society in which envy poses a real threat to moral sympathy, shame will serve to counteract such envy. As we now know, Smith's argument was wrong, as envy remains one of the passionate emotions that continues to stoke the fires of conspicuous consumption characteristic of affluent capitalist societies (his argument may have some force in the case of peasant societies wherein envy is more conspicuously a transgressive emotion, or in Asian societies in which shame often plays a role analogous if not identical to 'guilt' in our society, but in a society which revels in routine mass media displays of 'shamelessness'?).

Another reason why recourse to shaming punishments does (or may) not work in our society:

"The fragmentary, reflexively created self impacts on the experience of shame in a number of ways. With the freedom, insecurity, and isolation of the late-modern self, one's view of oneself--even from the standpoint of others--is likely to be less focused than it would have been when the social formation of self gave rise to a more solid and unitary product. Alas, in the fragmentation of the self, experiences of shame may arise through the standpoint of another which is a disarticulated aspect of self. In this latter case the shame is narcissistic, and does not necessarily contribute to social conformity but is symptomatic of individual pathology [A compelling and disturbing illustration of the kinds of pathology that might arise from the experience of shame is provided by James Gilligan in his book, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, 1996]. The clinical condition of narcissism arises when the self fails to form social relationships with others but treats them as objects which can be used to satisfy unconnected desires of the self. Narcissistic shame, then, is more a short-circuit and less a social sanction." (J.M. Barbalet, Emotion, Social Theory, and Social Structure: A Macrosociological Account, [Cambridge, UK: CUP, 1998]: 119) Indeed, Barbalet discusses the research of other such as Thomas Scheff and Helen Block Lewis which detail the deleterious consequences of "shame gone wrong/bad," i.e., those cases in which "bypassed" or "denied" shame (i.e., the shame affect is unavailable to the subject) leads to hostility and rage, or when the shame of the "other" is experienced as a source of hostility: "In the case of overt and bypassed shame...the feeling of shame cannot be discharged. A consequence of this is that neurotic symptoms form, the expression of which include humiliated fury and shame-rage" (Barbalet: 121).

I think it's not implausible to argue that many of those who commit crimes are lacking a healthy sense of self-respect and self-love: "When self-love is sufficiently diminished, one feels shame," according to James Gilligan (see reference above), and continued or constant shaming "leads to a deadening of feeling, an absence of feeling." In such cases at least, it is clear that shaming mechanisms only exacerbate exisitng problems of criminal justice.

Cross-posted at PrawfsBlawg

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 9, 2008 11:13:40 AM

Patrick, I think you more thoroughly covered the question I have always asked when discussing shaming punishments: How do you shame someone who doesn't know what shame is?

Given our excessive prison populations, I would like to see experimentation with shaming or corporal punishments as a means of giving people their just desserts without incurring the costs of: (1) taking them out of society, where they could be working legitimate jobs, and (2) putting them into state-funded facilities where our tax dollars provide them with food, shelter, and health care.

It's just speculation, but I think that shaming punishments would work best with non-violent, first-time offenders, and especially with white-collar criminals who have more of a stake in their reputations. Then again, if the state only allowed certain sub-groups of criminals the opportunity to "shame-out" of prison time, it would likely exacerbate the existing equality issues of the criminal justice system.

Posted by: Vince 2L | Mar 10, 2008 2:07:45 PM

Ironically, Bradshaw on the Family is THE Bible for most if not all childhood abuse victims of all types, and Bradshaw finds "toxic shame" at the core of dysfunction.

In reaction, and by hijacking the victim's rights movement, "tough on crime" arguments coined "the abuse excuse," "activist judges" and and "PC" this or that and created through laws a dysfunctional parens patriae that mirrors the dysfunctional family.

Posted by: George | Mar 10, 2008 3:26:14 PM

I was doing some marketing research for our website and came across this article. Very interesting; coming from a phsychology background, I have to agree with Vince's comment - shame punishment would only work for certain peoples - and thus would be largely ineffective if implemented across the board and discriminatory if implemented somewhat arbitrarily on the advice of a criminal psychologist. This raises more than a few questions that are not unique to the hard problem of state law and parens patriae implementation prerequisites.

Posted by: Speeding Ticket | Jul 2, 2008 6:52:03 PM

Since speeding is very dangerous I would say that the mother did a goo job making his son hold the sign "i am stupid" ill bet the kid isn't speeding anymore!

Posted by: ny speeding ticket lawyer | Jun 6, 2012 2:21:59 PM

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